Multiply and Replenish
Mormon Essays on Sex and Family
Gender and Spirit
Jeffrey E. Keller
[p.171]There has never been a consensus among Mormon theologians as to when we acquire our premortal individual characteristics, including sexual identity.1 Church founder Joseph Smith’s original teaching on the subject stated only that “the Spirit of Man is not a created being; it existed from eternity.”2 Though the prophet never explicitly mentioned gender, and indeed used a neuter pronoun to describe one’s eternal spirit, some of his contemporaries inferred preearthly gender. Joseph Lee Robinson, for example, wrote, “As we understand, [our spirits] are organized upon the principle of male and female.”3
Though later church president Brigham Young and several key apostles were never as direct in elucidating a doctrine of spiritual gender as Robinson, they assumed that “the spirit is in the likeness and shape of the body which it inhabits.”4 Apostles John Taylor and Orson Pratt referred to “male and female spirits,”5 and Taylor further proclaimed that courtship between spirits led to sexual covenants in a preearthly life. According to Taylor, women in a pre-earth life “chose a kindred spirit whom [they] loved in the spirit world … to be [their] head-stay, husband and protection on earth.”6
Decades later Elder B. H. Roberts became the first church theologian formally to postulate gender before spiritual birth: “There is in that complex thing we call man, an intelligent entity, uncreated, self-existent, indestructible, … possessed of powers that go with personality only, hence that entity is he, not it, …”7 Apostle James Talmage similarly proclaimed six years later, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms as reasonable, scriptural, and true, [p.172]the doctrine of the eternity of sex [i.e. gender] among the children of God.” Talmage unintentionally anticipated future questions when he also declared: “There is no accident of chance, due to purely physical conditions, by which the sex of the unborn is determined; the body takes form as male or female according to the sex of the spirit whose appointment it is to tenant that body.”8
The issue of assigned gender resurfaced most recently as a response to questions regarding homosexuality and the role of women in the church. Addressing the latter topic in a sermon to the 1983 October Women’s Conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “I know of no doctrine which states that we made a choice when we came to earth as to whether we wished to be male or female. That choice was made by our Father in Heaven in his infinite wisdom.”9
Seven years earlier in the October 1976 priesthood session of general conference, Apostle Boyd K. Packer had tackled the issue of homosexuality. In this talk he addressed a concern of transsexuals (i.e. people who feel trapped in the body of the opposite gender). Echoing Talmage’s 1914 sentiments, Packer stated, “From our premortal life we were directed into a physical body. There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits.”10
Modern sexual issues present more theological questions than simply a mismatching of spirits, however. As intuitively obvious as gender may seem, it is difficult to define precisely.11 Briefly, all human embryos initially have the complete cellular apparatus for making male as well as female sexual organs. The sex of the end product is determined by the embryo’s particular genetic make-up as reflected in its paired sexual chromosomes, designated X and Y. If an embryo has two X chromosomes, its potentially male system degenerates and the female system develops. If the embryo has one X and one Y chromosome, the reverse happens and a male develops.
In the real world, however, every conceivable variation on this idealized system occurs. Depending on the physical location of each type of cell line, some individuals may develop into true hermaphrodites, having one testicle and one ovary, or both types of tissue on a single gonad. Further, since sexual development also depends on genes found in non-sexual chromosomes, malfunction of these other critical genes can cause a variety of sexual misdevelopment: infertile but normal appearing females, infertile [p.173]but normal appearing males, and many varieties of pseudohermaphrodism wherein it is impossible to say by looking at the genitals of a newborn whether the child is male or female. Whether to raise these children as male or female is often an arbitrary decision made by doctors and parents. Both decisions usually require reconstructive surgery and lifelong hormonal therapy. One would expect that with respect to the indwelling spirit, the choice of gender made by these parents is incorrect 50 percent of the time. There are also cases of male children who have been raised as psychologically normal females (albeit infertile) following accidental amputation of the penis.
These cases, as a whole, are not as uncommon as one might think. They are problematic to Mormon theology because they suggest that many people who were, say, males in the preexistence have in this life a female body and a female self-image; they marry and are sealed as females and raise adopted children as females. The theological issue of their eternal sexual status is understandably of vital interest to them.
One possible way to explain these cases would be to invoke the omniscience of God: God knew that the surgeon would slip during the circumcision and amputate the penis and as a result the child would be raised as a female. Therefore, God inserted a female spirit originally. However, such a solution may invoke an inordinate amount of predestination for Mormon theology.
The case of transsexuals is even more problematic. The transsexual male sincerely feels that he is a female inside a male body, typically from his earliest childhood memories. Despite public assurances by church authorities that God never makes mistakes assigning gender, and despite the fact that participation in a sex-change operation may be grounds for excommunication, the church has been surprisingly lenient in dealing with individual cases of transsexualism and sexual misdevelopment.
If spirits before earth life are male or female, it follows that sexual identity will persist after the resurrection. This is also implied by the Mormon concept of (1) a heavenly father and mother who have begotten our spirits in their image,12 and (2) our capacity to become like them after resurrection. Indeed, the epitome of exaltation to [p.174]Mormons is “eternal lives,” meaning that after resurrection some will create eternal spiritual offspring.”13
According to this theology, sexual gender after the resurrection is essential because “[God] created man, as we create our children; for there is no other process of creation in heaven, in the earth, or under the earth or in all eternities.”14 Indeed, Orson Pratt went so far as to assign post-resurrection sexual reproduction to all living things: “the spirits of both vegetables and animals are the offspring of male and female parents which have been raised from the dead.”15 Apostle Heber C. Kimball went further, assigning spiritual gender and sexual reproduction to inanimate objects like the earth: “The earth has a spirit as much as any body has a spirit,” and added, “Where did the earth come from? From its parent earths.” Kimball understood the interaction in this life between a farmer and the soil to be a type of sexual congress resulting in the “conception” of plants: “Does this earth conceive? it does, and it brings forth. If it did not, why do you go and put your wheat into the ground? Does it not conceive it? But it does not conceive except that you put it there. It conceives and brings forth, and you and I live.”16 In the twentieth century Apostle John Widtsoe was more reserved: “Sex is an eternal quality which has its equivalent everywhere. It is indestructible. The relationship between men and women is eternal and must continue eternally.”17
However, Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith qualified this by noting that “only resurrected and glorified beings can become parents of spirit offspring.”18 When questioned as to how resurrected beings in the lower kingdoms would be kept from cohabitation, he responded that “the privileges of increase or cohabitation between men and women in these kingdoms would be impossible because of peculiar conditions pertaining to these glories.”19 Smith based this interpretation on Orson Pratt’s teaching in The Seer20 that “there will be several classes of resurrected bodies: … each of these classes will differ from others by prominent and marked distinctions.” Smith interpreted Pratt’s “marked distinctions” to be the absence of sex organs and sexual gender in the lower kingdoms: “I take it that men and women will, in [the Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms], be just what the so-called Christian world expects us to be—neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings having received the resurrection.”21
[p.175]The Mormon doctrine of sexual gender encompasses several seemingly inconsistent beliefs. First, Mormon theologians agree that gender has existed from the beginning, but they disagree as to when this beginning was. Nevertheless, men and women created in the image of divine heavenly parents procreate spirits via sexual union; our mortal bodies look like these spirits. Second, the blurring and overlapping of sexual identity in this life do not necessarily negate the concept of eternal gender if the omniscience of God can always be invoked to explain them. Finally, gender and procreation may continue after the resurrection in the celestial kingdom but not necessarily in the lower kingdoms.
A related question was addressed on a national level early in 1981 when the U.S. Senate tried to determine when “human life” begins. At issue was a statement in an anti-abortion bill sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms which read, “Present day scientific evidence indicates a significant likelihood that actual human life exists from conception.”
Although several distinguished scientists, philosophers, and theologians spoke on both sides of the issue, the Senate committee was unable to substantiate Helms’s claims. The National Academy of Sciences subsequently declared that Helms’s bill dealt “with a question to which science can provide no answer.” Leon E. Rosenburg of the Yale Medical School added, “I believe that the notion embodied in the phrase ‘actual human life’ is not a scientific one, but rather a religious, metaphysical one.”22
The religious, metaphysical issue of “human life” in Mormon theology boils down to the question of when the spirit enters the body. If, as Mormons believe, physical death is that moment when the spirit leaves the body, it follows that a fetus is not yet alive in the fullest sense until it unites with a spirit to form a living soul.
There are basically three periods when a fetus could acquire its spirit: (1) at conception, (2) at “quickening” (the first movements of life felt by the mother, usually in the fourth month of pregnancy), or (3) at birth. Interestingly, each of these three periods has had its supporters among LDS church leaders.
The idea that the spirit enters the embryo at the moment of conception logically entails the corollary that abortion is murder. While never directly addressing the issue of the spirit-body, many church leaders in the mid- to late 1800s equated prenatal killing with [p.176]infanticide. Church president John Taylor, speaking of abortionists, wrote, “They are murderers and murderesses of their infants. … and you that want them, take them, and you that do will go with them, and go to perdition with them and I tell you that in the name of the Lord.”23 In 1884 Apostle George Q. Cannon stated, “They [abortionists] will be damned with the deepest damnation: because it is the damnation of shedding innocent blood, for which there is no forgiveness.”24 As late as 1916 Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, “It is just as much murder to destroy life before as it is after birth, although man-made laws may not so consider it: but there’s One who does take notice and his justice and judgment is sure.”25 Seven months later the First Presidency gave its “unqualified endorsement” of Smith’s writing.26
However, unlike other anti-abortion groups such as the Catholic church which recognized a fixed period of “ensoulment,” the Mormon position has never been derived explicitly from an assumed time when the spirit enters the body. Brigham Young also associated abortion with infanticide, although not as explicitly as John Taylor and George Q. Cannon27; still, Young did not believe the spirit enters the body until the time of quickening, though he did not differentiate between abortion before and after quickening.28 As quoted by Joseph Fielding Smith in Doctrines of Salvation, Young stated, “When the spirit leaves them [mortal bodies] they are lifeless: and when the mother feels life come to her infant, it is the spirit entering the body prepatory to the immortal existence.“29 The First Presidency was likely referring to Young when it wrote, “True it is that the body of man enters upon its career as a tiny germ embryo, which becomes an infant, quickened at a certain stage by the spirit whose tabernacle it is, and the child, after being born, develops into a man.”30 A scriptural precedent for this view may be inferred from Luke 1:41, “when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe [John] leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost,” although this scripture has not been explicitly quoted for this purpose.
Unfortunately, although “quickening” has been a popular concept, there is no scientific phenomenon recognizable as quickening. The fetus begins to move as soon as the biochemical contractile proteins actin and myosin come together, and the mother does not feel this movement until months later. Perhaps in part because of [p.177]this, modern church authorities have not publicly supported Young’s hypothesis.
Interestingly, since Joseph F. Smith’s 1917 statement, the Mormon church has also rejected the notion that abortion is murder. When asked if abortion was murder, Apostle David O. McKay wrote in 1934, “To this question the Church has not made an authoritative answer. It does, however, condemn abortion as a very sinful act.”31 Nearly forty years later the First Presidency affirmed this position: “As the matter stands, no definitive statement has been made by the Lord one way or another regarding the crime of abortion. So far as is known, he has not listed it alongside the crime of the unpardonable sin and shedding innocent blood. That he has not done so would suggest that it is not in that class of crime and therefore it will be amenable to the laws of repentance and forgiveness.”32
One possible reason why abortion is not defined as murder is the possibility that the spirit has not yet entered the body. Not surprisingly, McKay believed that the spirit enters the body at birth. In the same letter quoted above, he wrote: “Undoubtedly the nearest approach we have to definite knowledge on this subject is the statement made by the Savior, 3 Nephi 1:13, wherein he said: `Tomorrow come I into the world.’ This indicates that the spirit takes possession of the body at birth. Life manifest in the body before that time would seem to be dependent on the mother.”33
President J. Reuben Clark, citing the same scripture, similarly stated, “But it seems possible that the spirit may not be present in the embryo till at least shortly before birth, whether the birth be regular or premature.”34 Another scripture that may refer to the spirit’s inhabitation of the body at birth is Moses 6:59: “Ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, …”
A second reason why abortion is viewed differently from murder is an idea propounded by Brigham Young—that the union of body and spirit prior to birth, or even shortly after birth, is reversible. As recorded in Wilford Woodruff’s journal, 15 October 1867, Young said: “When some people have little children born of 6 & 7 months pregnancy & they live but a few hours then die they bless them &c. but I dont do it for [p.178]I think that such a spirit has not a fair chance for I think that such a spirit will have a chance of occupying another Tabernace and developing itself.”35
Whether intentionally or not, Elder McConkie refuted Young’s sentiments as well as indirectly supported the notion of spirit-body association at birth when he wrote, “Mortality is fully upon us when we first breathe the breath of life.”36
Despite the various opinions voiced by church authorities on when the spirit enters the body, or perhaps because of them, the First Presidency of Joseph Fielding Smith’s era concluded in 1970: “We may say that there is no direct revelation upon the subject of when the spirit enters the body; it has always been a moot question. That there is life in the child before birth is an undoubted fact, but whether that life is the result of the affinity of the child in embryo with the life of its mother, or because the spirit has entered it remains a mystery.”37
This admission, however, in no way diminished the church’s abhorrence of abortion. Indeed, although the LDS church did not directly address the Senate Hearing on Human Life in 1981, previous editorials in the Church News indicated that the church would support the proposition that human life exists from conception. A Church News editorial from 3 August 1974 approvingly quoted Senator James Buckley of New York: “Anyone with the biological facts knows that a fetus, from the moment of conception, is a living human.”38 Elder James E. Faust supported this view in an April 1975 general conference address, while at the same time explicitly disassociating the concept of “human life” from dependence on a spirit-body doctrine: “Some say, as did the Supreme Court of the United States, that it is only a theory that human life is present from conception. This is contrary to insurmountable medical evidence. … Because she feels it, every mother knows there is sacred life in the body of her unborn babe. There is also life in the spirit, and sometime before birth, the body and spirit are united. When they do come together we have a human soul.”39
Three years later Patriarch Eldred G. Smith intimated for the first time since 1916 that abortion may be murder, although he was probably speaking of the concept of “human life” rather than spirit-body and did not intend his remarks to represent a change in church policy. After quoting Doctrine and Covenants 132:19 (“And if ye [p.179]abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood”), Smith stated, “What do you think He’s talking about? Is it possible that He was referring to abortion? Think about it! Is there more innocent life than that of the unborn child? And why is murder referred to when the Lord is talking about marriage?”40
It should be noted that despite the sentiments expressed above, the fetus has never been accepted as having full individual rights by society in general or the church in particular. For example, if human life truly begins at conception, the embryo, from the moment of conception, would enjoy all of the rights any individual has in our society, such as inclusion in the National Census and Social Security payments under Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In the case of a miscarriage, birth and death records should be filed and the fetus buried in a cemetery as is customary for other, older, individuals. In the church such a miscarried fetus would be entitled to a name, a blessing, and a burial, none of which is currently given.
From the perspective of the medical profession, the concept of human life from conception is also fraught with difficulties. First, there is no consensus about when conception (the beginning of pregnancy) actually occurs. The dictionary definition of “conception,” which presumably most of the commentators quoted above had in mind, usually refers to the moment when an egg is fertilized by a sperm. However, the medical profession does not recognize the beginning of pregnancy until the dividing, developing egg implants itself in the uterus six days after fertilization. This is the earliest point at which pregnancy can be detected clinically. Thus, the Food and Drug Administration labels the I.U.D., which works by preventing implantation of the fertilized egg, as a contraceptive (preventing pregnancy) rather that as an abortifacient (inducing abortion). (To date the LDS church has not singled out the I.U.D. as being less acceptable than other forms of contraception.) Other points when “conception” may occur are (1) at two weeks, when the possibility of twinning is past (no “individual” exists until then), or (2) when the fetus demonstrates awareness of or responsiveness to external stimuli, spontaneous muscular movement, reflexive action, or a positive brain scan (EEG). The presence of an one of these criteria negates a clinical finding of “death,” according to the report of the Ad Hoc Committee of Harvard Medical School.41
[p.180]No matter which definition of conception is used, once a decision by society or church is made to recognize human life from conception, any medical procedure which increases the rate of miscarriage could be viewed as involuntary manslaughter. This would include amniocentesis, x-rays, cancer chemotherapy, and medications for the mother. An interesting case along these lines involves the hydatidiform mole, which is a potentially cancerous cluster of cells sometimes found in a woman’s uterus. Removal of this mole theoretically could be murder, as it is nothing more than a fertilized egg gone awry.
In conclusion, the LDS church’s stand against abortion does not derive from a doctrine fixing the time when the spirit enters the body. Further, although church authorities have held various opinions about the subject of the spirit entering the body, no “orthodox” view exists in the church; it is a “moot question.” An interesting corollary doctrinal point developed in the process is that life can exist without direct spiritual inhabitation, through “affinity” with another spirit, in this case the mother’s. Finally, although the fetus does not enjoy all of the rights of other individuals, the LDS church has generally affirmed its right to live.
JEFFREY E. KELLER, M.D., is an emergency physician in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “Gender and Spirit” first appeared as “Question: Is Sexual Gender Eternal?” and “When Does the Spirit Enter the Body” in Sunstone 10 (Nov. 1985): 38-39, and 10 (Mar. 1985): 42-44.
4. Charles W. Penrose, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Booksellers Depot, 1854-86), 26:21 (hereafter JD; see also JD 15:242; 26:216; Parley P. Pratt, Key to Theology (Salt Lake City, 1943), 50, 124.